Tinny music on the bus. Your movie’s favourite soundtrack. That moment when the club just goes off. It’s impossible to imagine life without electronic music. But how much do you know about electronic music’s origins? We’ve put together a history of electronic music timeline, from the first devices at the end of the 19th century to today’s myriad of electronic music genres.
- Electronic music history
- Who first created electronic music?
- Where did electronische musik originate?
- Characteristics of electronic music
- What was the first electronic song?
- 1970s – from Kraftwerk to disco
- Rise of the machines – the 1980s – electropop, synth pop and hip hop
- The late 1980s and 1990s - EDM
- The 21st Century – electrohouse and the electropop revival
Electronic Music History
The earliest electronic music instruments include electrical organ the Telharmonium, created in 1896. This was an instrument not only capable of altering or indeed synthesising sound, but also of spreading it across the newly created phone network. Other, later instruments included the theremin, invented in 1920 by a Russian scientist, Leon Theremin; the Ondes martenot, first built in 1928 by a French musician and scientist, Maurice Martenot; and the trautonium (an early electronic synthesizer), designed by a German, Friedrich Trautwein, in 1930.
Phonographs (later known as gramophones) were invented around the 1870s and 1880s and were the first means of recording and reproducing audio files. Record players gradually became household items, with phonograph records introduced in 1925.
The first compositions featuring electronica by composers such as Paul Hindemith and Ernst Toch saw them layering recordings of instruments and vocals at adjusted speeds. The origins of electronic music lie in these techniques. John Cage composed ‘Imaginary Landscape No. 1’ in 1939 by adjusting the speeds of recorded tones.
Cage said of his ‘Imaginary Landscape’ pieces, ‘It’s not a physical landscape. It’s a term reserved for the new technologies. It’s a landscape in the future. It’s as though you used technology to take you off the ground and go like Alice through the looking glass.’
This first piece was scored for four performers who play a muted piano and cymbal, as well as two variable-speed phonographs with amplifiers – it’s one of the first examples of electroacoustic music.
By the 1940s, magnetic audio tape enabled musicians to tape sounds, then modify them by changing the tape speed or direction, leading to the development of electroacoustic tape music in the 1940s in Egypt and France. Germany pioneered music produced solely from electronic generators in 1953, together with musicians and engineers in the US and Japan.
Who First Created Electronic Music?
Many people refer to Edgard Varèse as ‘the father of electronic music’. Born in Paris in 1883, he relocated to Berlin in 1907, meeting composers such as Strauss, Debussy and Satie, all of whom were impressed by his interest in new instruments, particularly electronic ones.
However, it wasn’t till 1953 that the use of new technology invented during the second World War caught on with composers in France and Germany that Varèse was remembered and became a celebrity, lecturing at Yale, Princeton and Colombia universities. His piece ‘Déserts’, for chamber orchestra and tape, is considered electronic music’s first important work, and became the first piece transmitted in stereo on French radio.
‘Poeme Electronic’, completed in 1958 for the World’s Fair in Brussels, made an impact in terms of early electronic music, and Varèse’s work began to be released on record. Frank Zappa, Charlie Parker, The Beatles and many other musicians of that generation credit Varèse with inspiring them.
The Beatles were pioneers in this regard, introducing electronic instruments to their music – most notably the Moog synth that was used on their Abbey Road album in 1969.
Where Did Elektronische Musik Originate?
1953 – the radio studios of the NWDR officially opened in Cologne in Germany. This would become the most famous electronic music studio in the world. One of the studio’s founders, Werner Meyer-Eppler, had written his thesis on synthesising music entirely from electronically produced signals in 1949 – this was elektronische musik.
Karlheinz Stockhausen was one of the electronic studio’s resident composers, creating pieces such as ‘Mixtur’ (1964) and ‘Hymnen, drette Region mit Orchester’ (1967). He said that his listeners told him his electronic music gave them an experience of ‘outer space’, being in ‘a fantastic dream world’ and flying.
Characteristics of Electronic Music
In its simplest terms, you can characterise electronic music as a genre that’s created and produced by using electronic and electromechanical music instruments. These can include everything from an electronic oscillator and a theremin to a synthesizer, through Hammond organ, electronic piano and electronic guitar. Add in computers and software, and you’ve got the full landscape of modern electronic music.
What Was the First Electronic Song?
In the 1970s, electronically produced music began to really break through in terms of having a significant influence on pop culture and music. Genres such as krautrock, disco, new wave and synthpop emerged, adopting second generation synths (replacing the original compact synthesizer, the Moog, designed by Robert Moog), together with electronic drums and drum machines.
Kraftwerk were, arguably, the first electronic band. The German pioneers, with founding members Florian Schneider and Ralf Hütter became the godfathers of genres including synth-pop, EDM (electronic dance music) and post-rock. The New York Times summed up their significance: ‘they are what The Beatles are for rock music, a powerhouse for electronic dance music’.
Their 1974 album Autobahn brought together synth melodies with vocals for the first time and marked the transition from their earlier, experimental krautrock style to a sound that was mostly comprised of synthesizers and drum machines. Despite a mixed critical reaction at the time, artists such as David Bowie cited the album as a major influence.
Other artists who sowed the seeds of electropop were French composer Jean-Michel Jarre, and Yellow Magic Orchestra from Japan.
Disco artists also took advantage of the new electronic music tech that was being brought to the market in the 70s. Sly and the Family Stone’s hit ‘Family Affair’ incorporated one of the early drum machines.
1972 heralded the appearance of Japanese-based electronics manufacturer Roland on the market. The drums on 1974 hit ‘Rock Your Baby’ by George McCrae were entirely courtesy of Roland’s TR 77 synth. In 1977, Donna Summer’s timeless disco classic, with its propulsive synth backing track, ‘I Feel Love’, was described by producer Giorgio Moroder as, ‘really the start of electronic dance.’
Rise of the Machines
Perhaps the most important development in electronic music is the use of digital computers; the 1982 International Computer Music Conference dominated the Venice Biennale – one of contemporary music’s major festivals.
Early 80s music was dominated by synths, such as bass synth the TB-303, and programmable drum machines like the Roland TR-808.
This was the decade that saw electronic dance music explode, and the evolution of its sound. The music industry was transformed by the musical instrument digital interface – aka the MIDI – which brought computers, instruments and other hardware together for the first time.
In the UK, Human League were the first electropop group to score a No. 1 with their 1981 release ‘Don’t You Want Me’. UK New Wave also surfed the synth wave, with acts such as Gary Numan and Soft Cell; synth pop artists had a more polished sound, such as the Eurythmics and Depeche Mode.
Electropop gained a global audience through Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’-era releases and the Pet Shop Boys’ hits.
Hip hop continued to influence club culture, with famous artists using their turntables more like a musical instrument – look no further than pioneer Grandmaster Flash’s 1981 hit, ‘The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel.’
Electro built on hip hop and German synthpop, bringing the TR-808’s unique sounds to the dancefloor. Afrika Bambaataa and Frankie Knuckles were instrumental in creating house music by uniting older disco, electro-funk and electronic pop.
The Late 1980s & 1990s
Electronic dance music started to really resemble today’s dance music in the late 80s. DJs at clubs, festivals and raves led the way in playing European music, leading to 90s electronic genres such as techno, trance, breakbeat hardcore, jungle, drum and bass and UK garage.
Some of the best 90s electronic tracks were Daft Punk’s ‘Around the World’, Underworld’s ‘Born Slippy’ and ‘Insomnia’ by Faithless.
Towards the end of the 90s, dubstep emerged in South London, as an offshoot of UK garage, and paved the way for grime. Its aggressive sound was based on 140bpm and a wild use of electronic instruments. The genre was headed up by Skrillex, Skream and Phaeleh.
21st Century Sounds
The dawn of the millennium brought producers like Tiesto, Daft Punk and David Guetta onto the scene. Tracks like ‘We Found Love’ (ft. Rihanna) and ‘Stay the Night’ (ft. Hayley Williams) hit the mainstream, proving that mixing EDM beats with some of radio play’s beloved icons was a recipe for global success. This was electronic music designed for super-clubs and festivals.
Electronic music is constantly evolving, and as well as grime, electro house rose to prominence at the start of the new century. Characterised by prominent basslines, the tempo is between 125 and 135 bpm. Leading the pack were tracks such as Tom Neville’s 2005 remix, ‘I See Girls’ by Studio B and Fedde Le Grand and the D. Ramirez’s 2006 remix of Bodybrox’s ‘Yeah Yeah’.
From there, trap music took over, having originated from styles like dub, Dutch house, techno and Southern hip hop.
Electropop had a revival through stars such as Britney Spears (2007 album Blackout had a strong electropop sound) and a full-fledged electropop takeover was signalled by Lady Gaga’s 2008 debut, The Fame. K-pop, Calvin Harris, Dua Lipa and others have all kept the electropop flag flying recently.
Dua Lipa’s second album is an electropop banger – Future Nostalgia has not only been certified double Platinum and spawned four top 10 singles, but was the tenth most successful album of 2020 worldwide, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. And it’s currently the sixth most streamed album of all time on Spotify with over 10 billion streams.
Chartmetric.com posits that Covid-19, with a two-year hibernation in terms of clubs and venues meant that DJs in confinement explored darker, less mainstream subgenres such as techno and deep house, which have begun to have a resurgence. Chicago’s John Summit was named Beatport’s Best Selling Artist of 2021, for example; Rezz, meanwhile, is pioneering an experimental Space Bass sound:
Fred Again… goes back to the earliest days of electronic music, when composers were splicing together audio collages. The artist’s ‘Actual Life’ project involves samples from sources like voice memos, social media clips and music by other artists, incorporated into original tracks, often centred on mental health and well-being.
An Electronic Soundtrack for Life
Want to license electronic music for your project? We have tons of original music to choose from, and a dedicated electronic collection. Or discover one of our most successful electronic artists, Alex Arcoleo.
Electro-supremo Alex Arcoleo is one of Audio Network’s most successful composers – he signed up with us way back in 2011. Alex grew up in a musical family and is a self-taught pianist, composer and producer, whose tracks have been used by some of the world’s biggest brands, including Puma, BMW, Samsung and Lacoste. Check out his latest album Juna, a heartfelt and uplifting set encompassing experimental breakbeat, ambient house, downtempo chill and quirky electro.
Also head over to YouTube and check out the official visualiser for the track Marnie.
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